Seed Oils and Bad Science
The root of our national sickness is a seed.
Standing in the Atlanta airport in April 2022, waiting for a flight back to Washington, D.C., I watched as an employee at a sandwich shop tossed upwards of 20 plastic boxes of prepared food into a large garbage bag. The store was closing for the evening, and the bento boxes of hard-boiled eggs and grapes were likely passing the stamped expiration date. Someone somewhere had given this man his marching orders. But I and the people in line around me were still appalled at the waste. I’m not sure if we would have been more or less appalled to know that this sort of thing is a fairly common occurrence.
We are told that modern agriculture, combined with the virtues of capitalism, has vastly reduced material want. How many people in New York City woke up this morning and bought a coffee? How did the city know to make exactly the right number of cups? The full picture, visible to few beyond those who work in some part of the food supply chain, is more complex. On the one hand, we have produced vastly more food than in previous eras of world history. Yet on the other, our food waste is in steep excess of that of our parents and grandparents, not to mention ancestors much older. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Americans waste approximately one pound of food per person per day, amounting to 206 billion pounds of food waste, or between 30 and 40 percent of our food supply, per year, as of the most recent data in 2017. Our national food waste has increased by approximately 50 percent per capita since 1974, according to a study done by the laboratory of biological modeling at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in 2009.
Then 2020 happened. In the last year, and especially this past spring, we’ve seen food prices jump sharply, as the 8.5 percent inflation recorded in March 2022 fell especially hard on basic groceries like ground beef, butter, eggs, and milk. While we’ll have to wait to see hard numbers on how inflation affected national food waste, my experience in the Atlanta airport suggests that despite supply-side shortages in so many relatively inelastic markets, some things haven’t changed. Even as they push $4 per dozen, we’re still trashing eggs at the same clip.
The efficiency market
I was making sourdough bread before March 2020. Granted, not a long time before—I produced my first loaf just a few months before the pandemic made home baking trendy—but long enough to make me think I came by my love for the process honestly.
I started fermenting my starter not simply because I had some free time on my hands but because, as a lover of the culinary arts, it was the next challenge I wanted to conquer, a step up from instant yeast breads, not quite as involved as croissants (I have yet to aspire to such buttery heights), and the results were, well, delicious. Some people do marathons. The joy of cooking is found in the process, the labor of love, as much as it is in the end product.
So agrees the diligent Mary Harrington in an essay for UnHerd titled “The Curse of Sliced Bread.” Using the example of Chorleywood sourdough, a process of breadmaking developed in 1961 that uses a slurry of chemicals to speed up the cooking process, Harrington suggests the modern diet has been harmed by our obsession with productivity.
Our modern passion for efficiency has damaged our bodies by affecting the food we consume. It is hardly controversial today to suggest that processed food is Big Bad. We know that real food is better, but real food also takes far more individual effort from seed to serving than the industrialized alternatives. Eating grass-fed, grass-finished beef served with organic vegetables roasted in locally sourced butter for dinner would be better, of course, but after an eight hour workday, who is going to take the time?
For my generation, most of us lack the skills necessary to participate in a return to real food. Forget the fact that the breadwinner sex is hardly lusty enough to win anything more than a game of Call of Duty, so far removed are they from hunting wild game for dinner. Many among the breadmaker sex are equally incapable of cooking a meal that involves much more prep than opening packaging and preheating an oven. Slushy magazines and Instagram personalities brag about being “good at ordering takeout.” Perhaps Gen Z will do better, as recipes proliferate on TikTok. Still, the group would first have to graduate to foods without MSG.
This is the gift of capitalism. Rather than having to hunt our own game and slaughter and prepare it every night, we go to the grocery store, where we find that the invisible hand has not only butchered it but packaged it in plastic and kept it fresh for the very moment we decided we were hungry.
The typical cow today is “finished”—the process by which bovine are fattened before going to the butcher—on a diet that is 50 to 60 percent corn.
In the 70 or so years since processed food was first popularized, we have taken this principle to an extreme, such that it would be impossible to sustain a modern lifestyle without it. Eating in a way that builds our bodies up rather than tearing them down is a choice that involves an increasing amount of commitment. You know this if you’ve tried to avoid certain ingredients at the grocery store. The nebulous forces of supply and demand that Leonard Read worshiped for creating a pencil have similarly adapted to our time-saving preference, one of the highest modern goods, and purged the alternatives. It’s a variation on what my mother always told me about beggars not being choosers: When you delegate the work to another man, or thousands of men, you don’t get to tell them how to do it.
One thing we’ve lost as a result is variety. This sounds counterintuitive, in an era where you can get an avocado every month of the year and za’atar is a few clicks away from your doorstep, if it’s not already at your local grocery, but it is true. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the majority of all meat in all grocery stores is packed by one of only four processing plants, look closer at the ingredients in your food, and inquire after where your meat comes from. Manufacturers and chemists have found ways to produce a thousand new products, flavors, and experiences all from the first crop ever planted in the American colonies, the god maize. Man does not live by bread alone, but in 2022, we’re working hard to discover if he can do so by corn.
This is as true in the field as it is in the market. Massive farms have replaced family ones, crowded and muddy stalls replaced grazing fields, and feed replaced grass, because these are faster and more affordable ways to produce meat at a high volume; they are efficient for the machine of production, and cheaper for the consumer. The typical cow today is “finished”—the process by which bovine are fattened before going to the butcher—on a diet that is 50 to 60 percent corn. Soil is depleted of a plethora of nutrients as farmers neglect crop rotation in response to manufacturers’ demands for corn and soybeans, two crops that accounted for more than 40 percent of U.S. crop cash receipts in 2020. If you’ve ever driven through Indiana, you knew this already. Everywhere there are fields, and every field seems to be producing only soybeans as far as the eye can see. This is certainly a very efficient way to produce food if pure calories are what we desire. But is it good?
Shortcuts always come with costs. Like with Chorleywood sourdough, when we exchange one ingredient for another, we sacrifice something in the exchange. What happens when we try to substitute almost all of the ingredients?
There’s a fair bit of evidence showing that modern agriculture has had serious negative effects on the environment, which is important to consider. More than that, our efficient food industry seems to be impacting our health in a negative way. Vegetable oils, or “seed oils,” have become a popular target for the very online right as a key manifestation of this phenomenon, because, like sugar, seed oils are in everything. Unlike sugar, however, vegetable oils cannot be found in nature. They are a relatively recent invention, a byproduct that became a staple of our diets only after some smart men figured out how to make them edible. The dangers they pose to our health, particularly heart health, are correspondingly unnatural.
Though causation between the consumption of certain foods and the incidence of disease is difficult to prove given the uncontrollable variables involved, it is enough to see our national increase in illness, the prevalence of diseases and allergies that were obsolete or nonexistent prior to the industrialization of food, the rise of cancers affecting more and younger people, our national obesity epidemic, declining rates of fertility, and rising rates of depression and suicide to conclude that something is off. The arguments against animal products—butter, milk, and red meat being chief among the outcasts—are particularly hard to swallow considering that we have only gotten sicker with every new wave of manufactured food attempting to recreate what nature provides.
Having tried countless fad diets and come away even sicker than before, it is time for Americans to consider what is really at stake in our efficiency gamble. A return to a more historically grounded diet, and especially to animal fats rather than vegetable oils, offers the beginnings of a solution.
Trimming the fat
My first concept of the word “butter” came from the large, greige tub of Country Crock margarine spread that was always present in my parents’ fridge. A product of their generation’s belief that eating fat makes you fat, my siblings and I were raised on this substitute composed of water and vegetable oil. It wasn’t until I was around 12 years old and my parents were enlightened by some doctors to ditch the plastic for the real thing that I discovered real butter.
Before the age of 12, most of us had learned the rule that oil and water don’t mix. So how is margarine created? The answer, hydrogenation, is as simple as the process is complex.
In the late 19thcentury, French chemist and Nobel prize winner Paul Sabatier discovered hydrogenation by reacting hydrogen to an olefinic double bond (an olefinic, or an alkene, is a hydrocarbon containing a carbon-carbon double bond). While Sabatier believed hydrogenation could only solidify volatile organic compounds, in 1902, Wilhelm Normann of Germany applied the process to vegetable oils, creating a margarine much like what you find in stores today.
It’s more than just water and oil, however; the reaction also requires a catalyst, typically nickel. Before it can be released into the oil and hydrogen to catalyze a reaction, the nickel must be “pre-reduced,” also using hydrogen, at extraordinarily high temperatures (572 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit, or 300 to 400 degrees Celsius). Then, the nickel is deposited on a porous support powder, such as silicone or aluminum. Because of its high surface area, the nickel is liable to spontaneously ignite; thus, it is protected with a coating, typically a fully hardened edible oil. Finally, the reduced nickel is cooled and allowed to solidify in the form of pellets, which are then put into the hot oil to hydrogenate it. When the coating fat melts, the nickel particles are released into the oil. To prevent contaminants in the oil from reacting with and thereby poisoning the nickel, the oil is neutralized, bleached, and dried prior to hydrogenation.
Through this process, not only can liquid oil be converted to a solid fat, but chemists can also make it more stable and control the oil’s melting point, providing both longer shelf life and the ability to use the oil to fry at higher temperatures (as in deep frying) without burning the oil.
The original version of margarine, created during the Franco-Prussian War as a cheap butter alternative, was made by churning beef tallow with milk. Using hydrogenation, however, vegetable oils were industrialized to replace the comparatively scarce beef tallow with something even more cost-efficient.
It wasn’t until a few years later that the product was marketed not only as being cheap but also better for your body than butter. Despite initial backlash from dairy farmers, by 1969 margarine was used widely across the U.S. and Europe.
Canola and all his friends
Before there was margarine, there were vegetable oils, sometimes collectively referred to as seed oils because they are pressed from the almost-microscopic seeds of the various plants from which they stem. Safflower, sunflower, palm, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and countless other varieties of seed oils have been developed since Rudolf Diesel first began experimenting with them in the late 1800s as fuel for compression ignition engines. In their Practical Handbook of Soybean Processing and Utilization, Lawrence A. Johnson and Deland J. Myers describe how the diesel engine on display at the 1900 Paris Exposition was fueled with peanut oil. Interest in vegetable-oil-fueled engines waned over the next 50 years due to the popularity and stability of petroleum, but interest in vegetable oils as a cooking product took off.
In modern consumption, canola leads the tribe.
What is canola oil, actually? The word is a sort of acronym of “Canadian Oil, Low Acid,” referring to a genetically modified version of rapeseed oil, once used to lubricate steam engines due to its ability to cling to metal when wet. In 1956, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned rapeseed from the entire food chain, due to its high concentration of erucic acid, which causes fats to accumulate in the human heart, weakening the muscle and making it susceptible to disease. However, in 1978, a genetically modified version bred at the University of Manitoba boasted safe levels of the acid, and by the mid 80s the oil produced from the seed was already in widespread use. Today, the seed accounts for approximately $6 billion of the Canadian economy, according to the Canola Council of Canada.
What has to happen to a rapeseed for it to become the versatile oil we recognize is a much more involved process than hydrogenation.
The first step in the process comes after harvest, when rapeseeds are cleaned and hulled from their pods. This step also involves sorting the seeds from the chaff and other garbage that may have been picked up during harvesting. Then, the seeds are heated and broken down under rollers, a process called “flaking,” which crushes the seeds into pieces so they release a greater volume of oil during extraction. Next, they are cooked in heating drums, again to optimize the flakes for oil extraction, as well as to prevent their premature breakdown in the high heat environment, which would produce harmful enzymes. The cooked flakes are then pressed again, removing much of the oil and compressing the remaining husks into a cake. To remove the remaining oil, the husk cake is then saturated with a solvent called hexane, which, after extracting any remaining oil, is removed from the oil and solids for reuse. The remaining solids are processed into canola meal, which is used for animal feed.
Crude canola oil undergoes further heat and refining to improve its color, flavor, and shelf life. Due to the oxidative instability of the genetically modified rapeseed plant, canola oil quickly becomes rancid if it’s not treated with added preservatives, typically in the form of synthetic antioxidants. Though such antioxidants are common preservatives, when consumed often, they can cause liver enlargement, neurotoxicity, paralysis, and tumors.
In the last stage of the process, the oil is steamed to remove the unpleasant odor of the hexane, at which point it is ready to be packaged or further processed into consumer or commercial products.
The processes for extracting other seed oils are similar. All involve multiple levels of heating, including, crucially, at the packaging stage, when the completed hot oils are pumped into plastic bottles. Those that don’t go on to be used for deep frying at home are used in industrial fryers, where the oils are typically replaced only once per day, heating and frying hundreds of dollars’ worth of fast food in the meantime. Still other seed oils go on to be used in the manufacture of everything from baked goods, chips, and crackers to shampoo, beauty products, and the silicone coating on your vitamins.
Ten years after canola was invented, European governments began offering large subsidies to farmers to grow rapeseed in the 1980s. In England, production has risen from a few thousand European tons in the 1970s to several million today; between 2002 and 2012 alone, total rapeseed production doubled.
Seed oils’ versatility might be the most startling thing about them. They are, quite literally, in everything. They are not simply a fast-food phenomenon, though Burger King fry baskets are surely an important consumer. They are also found in innocuous things like the oil served with bread at a restaurant. Generally, most olive oils are actually a blend, topped off with cheap, flavorless canola. “Light” flavor olive oils are particularly suspect in that regard. Seed oils are also found in hundreds of purported health foods, particularly of the vegan variety. Cottonseed oil is a key ingredient in dairy-free milk alternatives, like oat milk. Canola and all its friends are found in almost every commercial substitute for animal products—vegan cheese, tofu, or lately, BeyondMeat.
The war on trans
The efficiency of capitalism could hardly have a better poster child. Here is a once-toxic seed, relatively cheap and largely untapped, that has now been genetically modified and processed to produce an oil used for an absurd number of things. What’s more, its revenue effectively feeds the entire country of Canada. What drawbacks could possibly outweigh that success?
Quite a few, as it turns out. Nutritionist, biochemist, and family physician Dr. Catherine Shanahan gained recognition online in recent years for her hypothesis that many of our national health problems are closely correlated with our consumption of these seed oils. The graph she promotes is convincing: While our consumption of canola and other vegetable oils has increased dramatically since 1960, illnesses like diabetes and prediabetic conditions have increased at almost the same rate. Meanwhile, our consumption of saturated fats, such as animal fats, and red meat—other culprits often blamed for heart disease and diabetes—have remained largely constant.
For Shanahan, the primary villains in the picture are polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, which are found most readily in vegetable oils. A healthy person’s body fat is composed of about 2 percent PUFAs; today, however, Americans’ body fat PUFA content ranges up to 30 percent. Such levels of PUFAs result not only in reduced energy but increased obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, in Shanahan’s estimation.
Vegetable oils also release thousands of “free radicals,” each one bursting into another chain when these oils, manufactured to be used at high temperatures, are put over the flame. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an accumulation of free radicals in the body creates a phenomenon called oxidative stress. “This process plays a major part in the development of chronic and degenerative illness such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, aging, cataract, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases,” the NIH explains.
Still, many nutritionists have argued, the relatively low amount of saturated and trans fats in vegetable oils is better for the human body than animal fat. Vegetable oils, according to popular medicine and places as prestigious as the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), are the “heart-healthy” choice, a necessary part of a balanced diet, and preferable to butter and other naturally occurring fats, such as those that come from animals.
Indeed, vegetable oils rose to popularity in a large part due to a marketing campaign by Procter & Gamble that framed these oils as a health food. Beginning with ivory soap, the entrepreneurial brothers found ways to produce a plethora of household staples for cheap by replacing animal fats with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to earn a profit during the economic recession of the 1870s.
As Drew Ramsey and Tyler Graham described in the Atlantic in 2012:
Thanks to Procter & Gamble the United States boosted the production of a waste product of cotton farming, cottonseed oil. To ensure a steady, cheap supply for soap production the company formed a subsidiary in 1902 called Buckeye Cotton Oil Co. Before processing, cottonseed oil is cloudy red and bitter to the taste because of a natural phytochemical called gossypol (it’s used today in China as male birth control) and is toxic to most animals, causing dangerous spikes in the body's potassium levels, organ damage, and paralysis.
Cottonseed oil was, and still is, marvelously cheap. And when hydrogenated, it looked an awful lot like lard. In 1910, Crisco was born.
To sell the new product, P&G hired the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which launched what is now recognized as the first high-dollar marketing campaign in America. At the time, food labels were unregulated. The copywriters claimed cottonseed oil was healthier than animal fats for human digestion. By 1916, the company had sold 60 million pounds of Crisco.
“Samples of Crisco were mailed to grocers, restaurants, nutritionists, and home economists.… Doughnuts were fried in Crisco and handed out in the streets. Women who purchased the new industrial fat got a free cookbook of Crisco recipes…Recipes for asparagus soup, baked salmon with Colbert sauce, stuffed beets, curried cauliflower, and tomato sandwiches all called for three to four tablespoons of Crisco,” Ramsey and Graham wrote.
Another moment in history helped cement the talking points of the P&G advertising campaign into our current understanding of vegetable oils. This was the 1990s backlash to the proliferation of partially hydrogenated oils—the same liquid fats that were turned into solids through a chemical reaction with nickel to produce margarine and Crisco. With heart disease soaring, public-health officials and scientists began to point to trans fats as the problem.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil products contain a high amount of what HSPH still calls the “worst type of fat”: trans fats. While naturally found in beef and dairy fat in trace amounts, scientists discovered trans fats proliferated in vegetable oils that were heated during the hydrogenation process. Trans fats were vilified in the early 1990s not only due to their inflammatory qualities, which make them a culprit for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic heart conditions, but also because they increase what has been called the “bad” type of cholesterol (LDL) and lower the “good” type (HDL). In the years following the popularization of hydrogenation, between 2 and 3 percent of the total calories in the average U.S. diet were derived from trans fats. The substance of Crisco, as originally formulated, was composed of approximately 50 percent trans fats.
In need of a culprit to blame for heart disease after President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955, the NIH funded a German biochemist named Fred Kummerow to study the illness. When Kummerow discovered trans fats in diseased arteries, he believed the solution to heart failure would demand eliminating trans fats wherever they were found. It was not until decades later, however, two years after a 99-year-old Kummerow filed a lawsuit against the FDA, that the agency banned the use of trans fats in food products in 2015, which would take effect three years later in 2018.
While the FDA estimated early on that 95 percent of prepared cookies, 100 percent of crackers, and 80 percent of frozen breakfast foods contained these artificial trans fats, it did not even require these fats be listed on product packaging until 2006. Kummerow believed the processed-food industry’s close relationship with scientists in the 1960s and 70s played a significant role in delaying the ban of trans fats; even today, soybean farmers donate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the American Heart Association. The federal government may also have had dirt on its hands.
Either way, the solution wasn’t all that different from what Kummerow proposed. Animal fats hadn’t been used in manufactured food for more than a century, almost as long as manufactured food had existed. The majority of what was produced then, as today, was only possible because of the plasticity of vegetable oils. Besides, the logic went, if you ate vegetable oils in their liquid, nonhydrogenated form, you’d avoid both the trans fats found in hydrogenated oils and the saturated fats found in animal products, which at the time were still viewed with suspicion. The easier solution, the reasoning went, was to take only one step backward to nonhydrogenated vegetable oils.
By the FDA’s own estimates, even in the decade from 2003 to 2013, the average American reduced his intake of trans fats by more than 70 percent. Despite this decline in trans-fat consumption, heart disease still accounted for one in every five deaths as of 2017. While stroke and heart disease deaths decreased after the 1960s, that decline slowed and even reversed in some populations beginning in the 2000s, despite the success of the information war on trans fats.
The problem with the war on trans fat was it did not get to the root of the problem. While condemning hydrogenation, the fat warriors stopped short of condemning vegetable oils themselves, which contain countless of the same properties, despite boasting “zero grams of trans fats” on their labels (the FDA permits vegetable oils to be so labeled as long as the amount of trans fats is less than 0.5 grams per serving). Moreover, while trans fats were recognized as unhealthy, the original false claims against saturated fats found in animals were never popularly repudiated.
But while studies on saturated fats have not been popular, their results point directly against the reigning narrative. A 2013 study conducted at the KG Jebsen Center for Diabetes Research at the University of Bergen, in Norway, found that a very high intake of saturated fat did not increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. In the randomized controlled trial, 38 men with abdominal obesity were fed a diet high in either carbohydrates or fats, about half of which were saturated. All men in both groups were instructed to avoid hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, foods with added sugar, highly processed foods, and plant oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (vegetable oils). They were told to consume more than 500 grams of vegetables daily, as well as berries and fruits, and two fish dinners per week. Their fats came from mainly butter, cream, and cold-pressed oils.
Over the course of the study, which was conducted from January to May and published in 2017 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants on the high-fat diet “had substantial improvements in several important cardiometabolic risk factors, such as ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids (triglycerides), insulin and blood sugar.” In other words, eating saturated fats and avoiding seed oils improved the health of these obese men. The authors found no significant increase in LDL cholesterol, while HDL cholesterol tended to increase. Rather than coming down to a fat-versus-carb distinction, the authors concluded that eating a diet consisting of quality fats and a variety of fresh ingredients was the most important factor in the result.
“The alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated,” concluded Simon Nitter Dankel, an assistant professor at Bergen who led the study. “It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based products, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar.”
The reigning narrative on cholesterol as the root of heart disease has also not been able to hold as much water as once believed.
Christopher Ramsden has been dubbed the “Indiana Jones” of medical studies. An NIH biologist, Ramsden specializes in unearthing old studies, including, recently, raw data from the 1968-73 Minnesota Coronary Experiment, which found the dogma that vegetable oils were healthier than animal fat to be dead wrong. The experiment is one of the most rigorous ever conducted on vegetable oils and cholesterol in the human diet, encompassing 9,423 participants, aged 20 to 97, studied in the controlled, if morbid, settings of state mental hospitals and nursing homes over the course of 56 months. One group ate a steady diet of food cooked in or containing vegetable oil (corn oil, in this case), while the control group received its fat exclusively from animals.
Contrary to the science of their day and ours, while substituting vegetable oils for animal fats lowered the total level of cholesterol in the participants’ blood, the study authors found that this lowered cholesterol did not result in longer life. In fact, as cholesterol fell lower, the risk of death increased—22 percent for each 30-point fall. Also, heart attacks were not reduced in the group that consumed the corn oil. Eliminating trans fats was not the answer, it seemed.
Womb to tomb
In May 2019, a trendy new infant-formula startup received a visit from the FDA. The company, Bobbie, had been launched by two moms two weeks prior. With the goal of offering a formula created from entirely natural ingredients, something they found the market lacked, the women hoped to provide a clean formula to desperate moms who were ordering black-market formula from Europe. (Popular wisdom says that European formulas, like European beauty products, are far cleaner than their American counterparts.) But the FDA agents, after examining the packaging, told the Bobbie founders their label was not compliant with current infant-formula regulations. They would have to rework their entire production process and issue a recall—which amounts to writing on the wall for any product marketed for infants, especially infant formula.
In her coverage of the Bobbie formula recall for Inc. magazine, Leigh Buchanan describes why the founder, a Catholic mom from Ireland named Laura Modi, and her coworker from Airbnb, Sarah Hardy, wanted to create the European-style infant formula. The big three American baby formulas, Gerber, Enfamil, and Similac, all use vegetable oils, as well as corn syrup and a range of polysyllabic ingredients of unknown, if not outright unhealthy, value. (What are galactooligosaccharides?)
Modi recounted her reaction when she found herself in the infant-formula aisle after developing an infection that made breastfeeding difficult, and she read the labels in horror. “Why is corn syrup the first ingredient that I’m going to give my week-old baby? Doesn’t that feel wrong? It’s something I wouldn’t feed myself!” Modi told Romper in 2021.
The problem, according to Modi, is that the stringent FDA standards regulating baby-formula production are stuck in the 1980s conception of nutrition. European baby formulas, supposedly, are far cleaner, created not just from fewer ingredients, all of which are recognizable to the average consumer, but also sourced from local supply chains to be as close to real food as possible. Bobbie’s formula boasted, and still does, of being such a “no-nonsense” product. It includes no corn syrup, no palm oil, and no maltodextrin (a processed sugar derivative). Instead, the company used pasture-raised dairy, manufactured the product in Germany, and marketed it as toddler formula to attempt to avoid the stringent FDA requirements around infant formula.
It didn’t work. With $15 million worth of investor backing in Bobbie, the San Francisco moms worked quickly with the FDA infant-formula team in Maryland to bring the product up to snuff. Having done so, they re-released the FDA-approved formula to an anxious world of ingredient-conscious moms. For the first time ever, a U.S.-made formula was certified pesticide-free. The company sold out 10 months’ worth of backstock in two weeks. Third and fourth on the retooled ingredient list, however, after lactose and nonfat milk, are high oleic (safflower or sunflower) oil and soybean oil. While the FDA doesn’t require seed oils as an ingredient in infant formula, what it does require makes them near impossible to go without.
Infant formula is not the only product that has found itself bound by FDA standards that seem to run against nutrition science. In its own guidelines on healthy fats, the regulatory agency warns against consuming trans fats because of their propensity to increase cholesterol, but cautions that margarine is still healthier than butter. This, it said, is because when you combine the amount of saturated fats and trans fats in each, “the amount of cholesterol for butter is usually higher than it is for margarine.” A stick of butter contains zero grams of trans fats. A stick of margarine contains three. Another example is French dressing, which, until January 2022, was federally required to be composed of 35 percent vegetable oil. Presumably, this was another fallout from the war on trans, or perhaps points to more lobbying. Either way, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the very regulation that is supposed to be keeping us healthy is one big reason why our national diet is snowballing downhill.
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Another problem with such an efficient food chain is that one kink in the hose blocks the entire stream. Return to the Atlanta airport for a moment. What was happening there? The food so unceremoniously dumped into a large plastic trash bag was wasted. The productivity of the processed-food industry was shown to mean, in effect, that we can afford to be inefficient because of our excess. But it’s not actually efficient. The coffee shop in New York has enough coffee—or it did, before 2020—because it dumps gallons of excess coffee at the end of every day. In terms of seed oils, the problem is slightly different, but still a result of phony efficiency: All of our eggs are in one basket.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in April, corn and soybeans have not been immune to the effects of inflation. As they near record prices, practically every aspect of our food supply chains, from feed-finished meat to infant formula, has been affected. Formula shortages are now another political talking point, but the problem goes much deeper than the man residing in the Oval Office. Our lack of food diversity is not the only loss to result from our food-efficiency gamble, but it is the most noticeable of late.
So long as seed oils were cheap, maybe we were still coming out on top, at least economically. But now, as inflation hits vegetable oils hard and war in Ukraine causes a fertilizer shortage and complicates future production, it’s hard to know what, if anything, we gain by continuing to consume these oils. It is clear, on the other hand, what we have lost in the process: food produced from diverse, local ingredients; farms that operate independently of the tug of corn and soy cash crops; healthy hearts, healthy bodies, and healthy minds untainted by harsh chemicals and toxic oils; and, perhaps most importantly, the independence to choose our own diets. The efficiency gamble in food production was a deal with the devil, and heaven only knows what that means for getting out of it.